5 Ways to Find an Authentic Ecotour

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Robb Kendrick / Aurora / Getty

View of mountains and rice field under a cloudy sky, Madagascar, Africa.

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Environmentalists who decry the impact of travel should know that if Andasibe can't attract tourists, the people who live there will have to find another way to make a living — probably by exploiting nature, rather than protecting it. (A major nickel mine being developed near Andasibe is an ominous possibility.) "With ecotourism, the protected areas and parks are less likely to be used for strip mining," says Neel Inmadar, senior adviser on ecotourism for the green group Conservation International (CI). "You'll never stop development, but you can maintain the environment while providing economic benefit."

Then there's the less tangible benefit that comes to the traveler himself. I write about endangered species all the time, but it wasn't until I went to Madagascar and saw an indri lemur for myself that I could really understand the value of what I wanted to defend. It wasn't until I saw how little of the Madagascar forest has survived — 90% of the country's original forest cover is gone — that I could truly fathom the risk. If environmentalism requires a revolution of consciousness, maybe that can't be done at home — even if traveling requires carbon emissions. As Russell Mittermeier, the president of CI and my ecotravel partner in Madagascar, says: "You've got to see it to save it."

For the committed ecotraveler, then, the trick is to find a legitimate ecotour — it's not easy to distinguish a genuinely sustainable tour outfit from one that's green only in name. Courtesy of CI, here are the five questions you should always ask your tour operator to gauge its greenness:

1. Do you have a written policy on the environment? If the company has a written statement that includes things like sustainability aims and goals, it's a good clue toward their intent. If there's nothing on paper, it likely means they don't take ecotourism very seriously.

2. How do you measure your contribution to conservation or to local communities? In Madagascar, for example, the government splits park revenue 50-50 with locals — that's the kind of thing you should be looking for.

3. How many local people do you employ? More importantly, does the company employ local people in management positions?

4. How do you treat waste water? That's especially important for tours or hotels along the sea. Ideally, untreated waste water should not be pumped directly into open water or rivers.

5. Do you employ local guides? Not only does that help provide employment to nearby communities, but local guides are much more likely than non-natives to understand and respect the environment and culture around you.

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